After an exhausting 82-game preseason, the World Champion Cleveland Cavaliers begin their title defense in earnest Saturday against the Indiana Pacers. The Cavs’ second half struggles, injures, and lackluster defensive play are all now moot as the important games have finally arrived.
Before Game 1 tips off here is a quick primer on the Cavs and Pacers.
Who are the Pacers?
Last season Indiana won 45 games and earned a 7-seed in the playoffs. They gave their all against the Toronto Raptors before eventually falling in seven games. Despite winning three fewer games in 2016-17 the Pacers again secured the seventh spot in the East. The team averaged 105.1 points per game (15th in the NBA) and allowed 105.3 ppg (14th). Indiana does most of its damage from inside; they attempt only 23.0 three-pointers per game which ranks 27th in the league (they hit 8.6 triples per game which is good for 23rd). The Pacers finished strong, scoring an average 112.6 points in their last five wins while allowing only 97.6 ppg.
The Pacers are also contending with a trio of injuries. Jeff Teague suffered an ankle injury in the season finale, but he is expected to play in Game 1 Saturday. Glenn Robinson III is working through a calf strain and there is currently no timetable for his return. Al Jefferson sprained his left ankle, and there is no word on whether or not he will take the court against Cleveland.
Matchups This Season
Cleveland won 3 of 4 contests against the Pacers this season. However, each of the games has some caveats.
Cavs 93 @ Pacers 103, November 16. LeBron James sat on the second leg of a back-to-back, J.R. Smith was DNP, and Kyle Korver was still in Atlanta in the clubs’ first clash. How early in the season was it? Chris “Birdman” Anderson played six minutes. Kevin Love dropped a Minnesota-esque 27-16 and five Pacers scored in double figures. It would be unwise to conclude anything from this game.
Cavs 132 @ Pacers 117, February 8. Still no Smith, but the Big Three combined for 68 points, 18 assists, and 16 rebounds. Kyle Korver dropped 29 points on 8-of-9 three point shooting. C.J. Miles led the way with 23 points for Indy.
Cavs 113 – Pacers 104, February 15. Right before the All-Star break James netted 31 points with Kyrie Irving’s 26 right behind him. Kevin Love and Smith did not play. Glenn Robinson III scored 19 to lead the Pacers’ effort.
Cavs 135 – Pacers 130 (2OT), April 2. An instant classic. Cleveland finally had a healthy lineup (save Korver) and LeBron put up a triple double with 41 points, 11 assists, and 16 rebounds. Despite all five starters scoring at least 12 points, the game required double overtime because Paul George was a man possessed. George recorded 43 points, 9 assists, and 9 rebounds. As the most recent matchup, this (unfortunately) may be the best indication of how these teams are trending at the season’s twilight. While Cleveland eventually took the W it left plenty of hope in the Circle City.
Historical Postseason Clashes
This series marks the second time the Pacers and Cavs met in a playoff series; the franchises clashed in 1998, a first round matchup that Indiana took 3-1. Three-seed Indy won the first two games at home before the Cavs took Game 3 back in Ohio. Their momentum proved fleeting, however, and the Pacers won the clincher 80-74 in Gund Arena. These were the Cavaliers of Danny Ferry, Wesley Person, a young Z, and a rotund Shawn Kemp. In retrospect they were no match for the Pacers’ lineup of Reggie Miller, Chris Mullin, Jalen Rose, and Fred Hoiberg. That forgettable postseason appearance would be the last one for the Cavaliers until 2006.
Player to Fear
Paul George is not a world beater. Paul George is not a top-five talent. Paul George is likely not first-team All-NBA. None of that matters. PG13 is a dangerous player with or without the ball. As Cleveland saw on April 2, he has explosive offensive ability and cannot be guarded easily. After missing almost all of the 2014-15 season he is back in a big way. The four-time All-Star is averaging a career high 23.6 points, 3.4 assists, and 6.5 rebounds per game this season. He shoots 46% from the field, 39.2% from deep, and 89.8% from the free throw line. For a defensively challenged unit, perhaps one wearing wine and gold, George has the chance to feast. He almost single-handedly delivered the Pacers a 7-over-2 upset last year and deeply wants to finish the deal in 2017.
Also, keep an eye on C.J. Miles (the basketball player, not the swimsuit model). Miles played in Cleveland from 2012-14. Since leaving he has made a habit of tormenting his former club. In nineteen career games against the Cavs, Miles averages 11.9pts/2.3rb/1.3ast. While his career true shooting percentage is .534 he turns it up a notch to .637 when playing Cleveland. With Paul George to draw double teams and primary assignments don’t be surprised if Miles works his way to open shots.
Despite entering the postseason as the Defending World Champions of the World, the Cavaliers feel surprisingly human. Throughout the regular season the club struggled with injuries, slumps, and lack of cohesion. Even now Cleveland limps into the playoffs on a four game skid and 4-6 in their last ten contests. Indy meanwhile is on a five game win streak and is 6-4 in their final ten. Theoretically regular season momentum does not apply to the playoffs, but good vibes are better than bad.
Where does that leave Cleveland relative to their first round opponent? In a word, “Vulnerable.” The Cavs are the better team on paper, they have a higher pedigree, and will have home court advantage. However, he Pacers have shown they do not care what their seed is and can give Cleveland fits on defense. Still one team has Lebron James and the other does not. It will be a battle, but expect Cleveland to advance.
Cavs in 7.